The Aquatic Grave; An Underwater Eco Burial

How can a person be useful beyond their own death?

My Honours year focused on creating a way to turn death into something positive. I invented an ecological underwater burial system after consulting experts from various fields including Anthropology, Marine Biology, Geology, Law and Funeral services. 

The aims of the project were initially focused ecologically, looking to create a tangible link from ‘grave to cradle’. Death and Rebirth is a wide reaching and deep ideology across the world. In Western Christianity the body dies and the soul is born unto heaven, but as religious ideology is no longer as popular, the link of death and rebirth is weakening.

To understand what the popular understanding of ‘death’ was I created a sliding scale questionnaire. Asking people to put a mark between the extremes of ‘I die every moment’ to ‘I consider myself to continue after my body dies’ in between there were markers of when memory and personality are lost and unrecognisable, when the heart stops and the body ceases to function. To my surprise the majority of people considered they continued after their body dies.

 I aimed to create a tangible and immediate demonstration of the self continuing in a new form. After a few iterations I settled on creating an underwater burial system, at the time overfishing was highlighted as a global problem. This project was aimed to primarily encourage new sea life to flourish in a protected environment and secondarily as a silent protest against overconsumption and destruction of sea life.

To discover what happened to a body after it has died and exposed to water I conducted two first hand experiments. In one I collected water from a natural source and allowed a pigs trotter to rot within it. Secondly I created a hollow concrete block and submerged in the Tay river  near the sea to see if life would start to utilise the foreign object. With the results of the first experiment I consulted an Anthrobiologist to analyse the results. Somethings were present that would not be present in a live ecosystem and would have been cleaned away. The second experiment was positive, after six weeks I returned and fished the scaled down grave and it had mussels now present on the surface.

Witnessing the life being generated from the body of a loved one in the form of aquatic life. The grave and body provided a shelter, a food source, an anchor for sea flora as well as protecting the waters from commercial fishing. At the time and it has continued to be relevant, overfishing was highlighted as a global problem, this project was aimed as a form of protest against that.

In the final submission I had to compromise with my choice of material, after discovering how environmentally hazardous the concrete process is I looked for a naturally forming building material in the ocean, looking to nature for an engineering solution is a biomimicry principle. I aimed to create the graves from calcium carbonate, the same material the mussel shells are made, pushing as far as I could with the ecological aspect of the grave. At the time it was not feasible to create for the submission but I had experienced accounts from Marine Biologists stating that sunken cars, boats and planes were the best man-made aquatic shelters because of how the metal flaked as it degraded and its structurally intricate, so cheap iron was my final choice to allow those natural processes to thrive and I put small holes in the bottom of the casket just large enough for smaller creatures to go in and find shelter.

To feel a connection to the deceased I wanted visitors to the grave an opportunity to hear what the person had to say. I nominated some of the experts who had helped me out during the process to put their name to a grave and to have their words heard. We recorded what they wanted people to hear when they could no longer say it. This part of the project inspired my later artistic work and a way to extract the most authentic sentiments from a person